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Is Project Management Undervalued Skill or Core Business Function?

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 20th August 2015

The project management community expends plenty of energy discussing project management methods – arguing over the best approach for a project – the one most likely to ensure success, but often fail to think enough about the wider impact of a project and it’s effect on other projects that may be going on in different parts of the business. Many projects are effectively conducted in silos within large organisations.
The reason for this is that many consider project management undervalued skill rather than core business function (in much the same way as IT is not considered a core function) and yet no business can grow without IT skills and, increasingly, without PM skills.

Too often project management is seen as a one-off cost that has to be borne for individual projects rather than a strategic, organisation-wide function that could reduce inefficiencies and hence costs. Why is this?

Certainly there are 2 factors that contribute to this state of affairs:

  1. The people working in project manager roles
  2. The relative newness of this functional area

Of course project management has been around in business for a long time but it is still relatively under-developed compared to, say, accounting. That under-development is, in fact, one of it’s strengths because it means there is plenty of improvement and growth to be had, but it also means that it is changing – just look at how project management control methods have developed in the past 15 years – a period over which core accounting methods, for instance, have remained the same. There may be more sophisticated tools for accounting but the basics are unchanged and, indeed, finance is relatively simple compared to project management with it’s myriad variations and the fact that projects are so often breaking new ground.

There are some industries where every project is at the forefront of technology and pushing those boundaries requires an understanding of controlling risk and offsetting it with the potential benefits of the risk taking; something successful project managers are well-versed at.

Yet senior level executives tend to focus more on the marketing, strategy and finance aspects of the business while the abilities of a good project manager are often overlooked.

Who’s to Blame?

It is tempting to blame senior execs for undervaluing project management as a skill, but maybe the “fault” (if there is one) is that project managers do not fight their corner strongly enough. How many project managers do you know who are comfortable standing up in board level meetings and describing why they are so useful to the company, how their skills add value and arguing the case for approaching project management across all functions within the organisation so that all projects complement each other and contribute to the goal of improving profits. Do some project managers secretly under-value themselves?

Of course, the danger to an organisation of undervaluing project managers is that the best will move to other roles to advance their careers leaving less talented people will take on the role.

And yet a good project manager will master the skills of stakeholder management, planning, budgeting, scope management and risk management; will be able to motivate the project team, handle conflict and smooth ruflled feathers. And on top of that will be able to communicate to people at all levels of the project from team members to senior executives,

In fact, many of the skills that make a great leader in any walk of life.

Lack of Emphasis on Project Management

Projects continue to fail entirely or fail to meet their objectives and yet businesses continue to fail to place enough emphasis on the importance of good project management and well-trained, experienced project managers. Often believing they can simply assign someone from a different role to magically become a project manager who can accomplish a successful project.

Those organisations who understand the value of both training and experience do provide the essential training but can fail to see the bigger picture of how all projects contribute to the success of the business. Providing decent training to all PMs is not the whole solution.

Project Management Education

A graduate leaving university with a PM degree is unlikely to have the experience required to successfully run a project and yet companies are seeking more talent like this. One wonders why they are not devoting more time and resources to training people more experienced in the work place and developing talent from within the industry when good project management skills are one of the most important factors in the successful completion of projects.

Making project management a core business function and establishing defined career paths within an organisation for project managers would go a long way to helping minimise risk on projects and so increasing the likelihood of them being more successful.

The Difficulty with Projects

Many projects have multiple variables and risks and are breaking new ground – which is after all what projects, by their very definition, are all about. Few projects are easy – they tend, rather, to be long and/or complex, have a high profile and are often political instruments within an organisation. So right from the start they are risky undertakings.

project management undervalued skill

And yet organisations add to already risky situations by using ill-trained, under-experienced people and often fail to understand the bigger picture of fundamentally why a project is being undertaken and what it’s goal is for the organisation.

An experienced project manager, on the other hand, can take all the available information, unfazed by its uncertainties, risks and ambiguities and produce good time and cost estimates so they can plan accurately for success. They will set milestones, resolve problems, understand and manage complex inter-dependencies, mitigate risks, manage expectations and communicate with people at all levels of the project; all skills that contribute to project success.

Well that’s the theory anyway – what do you think? Do organisations under-value project managers and, if so, how can the industry effect change. How can you let your company know how important PM is so that we no longer discuss the high rate of project failures but can applaud the many and varied skills of the best project managers.

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